So this time, UMBC lost.
Virginia was 31-2 and seeded No. 1, not only in the East but the entire NCAA tournament. Nobody scored much on the Cavaliers, opponents averaging barely 53 points a game.
UMBC was 24-10, a plucky bunch that won the America East tournament in the final seconds. The Retrievers were the No. 16 seed, meaning they were as doomed as turkeys on Thanksgiving. The all-time record of No. 16 seeds was 0-135.
Virginia was in the higher-seeded white, of course, UMBC was in gold. Jack Salt won the opening tip for the Cavaliers..and…and…
Two hours later, the ground was shaking beneath college basketball. The Virginia defense had been shredded for 53 points — in the second half. UMBC has not only won, but dominated. It ended 74-54, and suddenly 0-135 had turned into 1-135.
One of the players in gold, Jairus Lyles, was saying through a smile, “It’s always exciting to make history.”
One of the players in white, Virginia’s Kyle Guy, was murmuring through his pain, “There’s not really a whole lot that can prepare you for this kind of feeling.”
One inexplicable, nobody-could-make-this-up night had reminded of so many things.
How anything is possible, when the score starts 0-0.
How there is no more fertile ground for sudden drama in all of sport than March, and the NCAA tournament.
And most of all, how history can be such a fickle, two-faced thing. Look one direction, you see pure joy. The other, a team getting its collective hearts ripped out. Guy again: “First time in history for anything is always hard for whoever’s on the wrong side of it.”
In a way, it’s strange, that one of the greatest moments in NCAA tournament history be a 20-point result. There was no dramatic title-winning dunk, like North Carolina State over Houston. No epic fight to the finish like Villanova over Georgetown. No Kris Jenkins 3-pointer like Villanova over North Carolina. This was a relentless throttling – tied 21-21 at halftime but a 53-33 mashing after that. UMBC had more trouble with Vermont than it did Virginia.
No, what makes this game immortal is the sheer shock of it, and how the world so suddenly changed, for both teams.
The Retrievers were, by nearly unanimous consensus, supposed to be one-and-done. Another underdog face in the field that had their brief moment in the spotlight and then went home. But they ended the night as toasts of the nation, cheered by millions, most of whom could not have told you what UMBC stands for had you offered them $1,000 for the correct answer. It would not be long until UMBC showed up in the crossword puzzle of The New York Times. As one of the players, Joe Sherburne, would say months later, “Nobody asks if we’re a junior college anymore.”
The Cavaliers were supposed to be a strong pick for the Final Four, and even more. A giant from the ACC. Their night ended with grim faces at the press conference, especially when asked if they were aware that no No. 1 seed had ever lost. “I think,” Ty Jerome said, “everyone is aware of that.” And then they needed a police escort back to their hotel, hurried to the sanctuary of their rooms through a side door, because there had already been death threats.
The universe had shifted in two hours, and No. 1 vs. No. 16 would never be quite the same again.
Nor would UMBC, which became the inspiration for all future underdogs, big and small. Months later, a check of the school found applications, booster involvement, T-shirt sales all skyrocketing. And in the office of school president Freeman Hrabowski III, a coffee cup with these words — Whenever you hear `we can’t’ tell them UMBC.”
Nor would Virginia. The Cavaliers took that anguish and used it for the next 12 months, not forgetting what it felt like in Charlotte — not until they were cutting down the nets as national champions in Minneapolis.
By then, Tony Bennett had become so renowned for how he had helped his players heal, other teams facing adversity in other sports were calling for advice. “That situation made me take a look at a lot of things,” he said. “There’s no way I would have gotten this close to my team. In a way it drew me closer to my family, to my faith. But also, what can we do to be better in certain situations as a team? You think differently. Through any adversity, there’s such wisdom in it.”
By then, Guy had learned to deal with his depression — he had been open about his struggles — and was finally ready to change the screen on his cellphone. Until then, it had been from the UMBC loss. “I feel like when you can remember the tough times you’ve been through and then set a goal to overcome it, and we’ve done that so far, you’ll be better off,” he said. “I use it as inspiration. I just think it was a life-changing moment on and off the court, and I didn’t want to forget it.”
He was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and changed his cellphone screen. With 2020 shut down, that act of atonement still stands as the last NCAA Tournament played — created partly by a night that will never die. That’s saying a lot for a game decided by 20 points.